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Mehleb in Malabo
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 05 - 2014

Last Saturday, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb concluded a couple of days sojourn in the resource-rich African country of Equatorial Guinea. Mehleb met with president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and vice-president Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, and the three men held discussions on economic cooperation between Equatorial Guinea and Egypt.
President Obiang Mbasogo extended an invitation to his Egyptian counterpart, the president-elect, to participate in the 23rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU), which is scheduled to be convened in the country's capital Malabo from 20 to 27 June.
Equatorial Guinea, which hosted the 17th Ordinary AU Summit in June 2011, is one of the fastest-growing economies on the African continent. The country's enormous energy resources explain its active participation in AU affairs at a political level.
Mehleb was accompanied by members of the cabinet, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmi, Minister of Agriculture Ayman Abu Hadid, Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Sherif Ismail, Minister of Health Adel Hassan Al-Adawi, and Minister of Housing Mustafa Madbouli.
Equatorial Guinea has great tourism potential that has hitherto been unexploited. Portuguese explorer Fernando Po, the first European to land on the island of Bioko where the country's capital Malabo is now located in 1472, was so enchanted by its natural environment that he called it “Formosa,” or “Beautiful” in Portuguese.
During the visit, Mehleb paid a visit to Equatorial Guinea's Petroleum Industrial Zone and pledged to improve bilateral cooperation in the fields of petroleum production and the petrochemicals industry. Egypt is also planning to step up relations in the development of construction, tourism and other sectors of the economy.
The Egyptian firm Arab Contractors, one of the leading construction companies in the Middle East, is particularly active in many parts of Africa including Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania, which Mehleb visited last week. Unlike Tanzania, which has a majority Muslim population and some of the largest Islamic cultural centres in Africa south of the Sahara, such as the Islamic Propagation Centre and the Tanzania Islamic Centre in Dar Al-Salam, Equatorial Guinea has few Muslims, meaning that Mehleb's visit focused on economic affairs.
Since the mid-1990s, Equatorial Guinea has become one of Africa's largest oil producers and exporters. With a population of only 650,702, the tiny island nation with an enclave on the mainland, Rio Muni, is the richest country per capita in Africa.
Even so, it has one of the lowest human development indexes in the world as wealth is distributed very unevenly, and the country ranks 136 on the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index. According to the UN, less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water and 20 per cent of Equatorial Guinea's children die before reaching the age of five.
The minister of housing's presence with Mehleb is important because Egypt has pledged to participate in the development of the country's housing sector, which is in a poor situation despite the country's oil wealth and small population.
Egypt, suspended from the AU in the aftermath of last summer's removal of former president Mohamed Morsi, has embarked on a diplomatic offensive against the AU decision, including thorough visits to African states.
According to the AU, member states that undergo “unconstitutional” changes in government face suspension from the Union, and the AU earlier pronounced Morsi's ouster an “unconstitutional coup d'etat”.
However, despite the temporary suspension Egypt remains one of the major contributors to the AU budget, and Cairo has warm political relations with most African countries. An AU delegation, headed by former Malian president Alpha Omar Konare, held extensive discussions on a wide range of topics with President Mansour and presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in April.
As a result, the official invitation to participate in the upcoming AU summit in Malabo is symbolically significant for Egypt. Diplomatically, the country is being taken back into the African fold, and the AU recently announced that it was supporting Egypt's forthcoming presidential election, scheduled to take place on 26-27 May.
During the meeting in April with Al-Sisi, the AU delegation expressed its support for Egypt's transitional roadmap, announced by the authorities in Cairo last July following Morsi's ouster.
Mehleb's visit to Equatorial Guinea is part of a wider picture of renewed Egyptian interest in cementing ties with Africa south of the Sahara. Received opinion in the wake of Morsi's dismissal from office and his subsequent trial had it that Cairo could find it difficult to regain its former high-profile status in the continent.
However, this opinion has been shown to be wrong, and Mehleb's visits to various African countries, strengthening bilateral relations, rekindling old friendships and promoting a new camaraderie with countries that previously did not enjoy strong ties with Egypt, are proving to be a watershed in Egyptian-African relations.
The AU now appears to be ready to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all lesson to be drawn from any individual member state's experience. All African countries are grappling with the question of democracy, and there is a consensus in Africa that Cairo is of critical importance to the African continent and a key component of the AU's success as a continental organisation.

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